Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams and the Disease of Depression

Nearly a decade ago now, an elementary school principal in the community where I then lived left a successful faculty meeting, drove up I-71 north of Cincinnati, pulled her vehicle to the side of the road where that stretch of Interstate runs high over a river valley, and flung herself off the bridge to her death. An entire community was shocked, not the least because the meeting which she'd led just before her suicide had found her as her usual bright and funny self.

More than that though, this was a woman who, as an educator, had been passionately committed to doing what was best for the students of her school. She was an encouraging presence in the lives of those kids. She never would have willfully or knowingly done anything to mar their psyches, such as delivering to them the memory of her suicide.

Yet this beloved educator who knew the name of all the students in her building took her own life, an act that deeply risked harming the psyches of her students. But no one who knew her blamed her. It would have been barbaric to do so. People understood, as my thirty years in ministry have confirmed, that suicide is rarely the rational act of a willful, selfish human being. For every suicide bomber or kamikaze pilot who takes their own lives in what are obviously self-centered, hateful acts, there are thousands upon thousands of tenderhearted, loving, caring people who take their own lives. And they don't do so out of selfish rationality or willfulness.

They do it because of depression.

Depression is a disease that can be chronic and low-level. But it also can rage in the lives and psyches of its victims like Stage IV cancer and be every bit as destructive, taking the lives of those who are afflicted by it.

As a pastor, I have observed how the physical disease of depression can undermine the beliefs and values of its victims, leaving them susceptible to self-loathing and self-destruction which is from hell itself. Nobody rejoices over suicide more than Satan.

The death of Robin Williams gives rise to these thoughts, of course. I don't know where Williams was spiritually. But I do know that someone who so cared about people would never have willfully or knowingly committed an act with the potential for plunging so many who relied on him for laughter and uplifting entertainment, not to mention his family and friends, into depression and sadness themselves.

It was depression that killed Robin Williams. And it was Satan, using that depression as a contact gel to Williams' psyche, who overrode the comic actor's better judgment.

When considering his death, it's best of course not to elevate him beyond what he was in life, an imperfect man of massive talent and good will for others who struggled with addictions as well as with depression.

And it is even more important that we not elevate ourselves at Williams' expense by believing lies, such as, that his death was the result of some deficiency in his character. Or that it was the act of a selfish, self-absorbed willfulness. Or that it stemmed from a posited malaise felt by those of his political beliefs, as it least one media commentator has claimed. Such explanations may feed our egos, but they're precisely the kinds of lies that the devil wants us to believe in order to put us off his deadly scent.

Williams was felled by the disease of depression. Period.

Fortunately, we do have means of dealing with depression. There are medications for that depression which is physiologically based or that has become rooted in a person's physiology. There is quality counseling available. There are suicide hotlines.

But the first line of defense is the depressed person's family and friends. It's true that the depressed often become adept at hiding their depression--as was the case with that principal and apparently, with Robin Williams. But when deep depression in those we love becomes known to us, we can say something. We can do something: Talk with the depressed friend, recommend that they see their doctor. Above all, we can pray for them.

These are all the same things we would do for someone we suspect of suffering from other physical maladies--from pneumonia to cancer.

Depression should be thought of in the same way.

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